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Southeast Asia

September 27, 2012

Is UNESCO Ruining Our World Heritage?

Tourists Crowd the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

The Temples of Angkor just outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia, are some of the most imposing temples in the world. Standing against a jungle backdrop, the movie-set perfection of the temples brings to life old world mysticism. For many, myself included, the visit to Angkor was dampened by the hordes of other tourists and buses that populated the area. It’s not just the tourists, but also the myriad of locals who line the temple areas chasing after unsuspecting tourists selling trinkets and books.

A walk through downtown Siem Reap isn’t any better. In one evening, my wife and I were approached by over 50 tuk-tuk drivers in about two hours asking us if we needed a ride to the temples, and that was on a calm evening. The economy of Siem Reap is thriving because of Angkor, but is that good for the temples and for the local way of life?

In 2011, over 2.5 million tourists payed a minimum of $20 to see the Temples of Angkor. It is certainly hard to blame them. After seeing them myself, they still stand as the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, though, a quick search will lend thousands of results about how the influx of tourists is damaging the sites themselves.

On the other hand, there are many other ancient temples scattered around the local area that aren’t included in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage list. A visit to these temples (Beng Melea, Koh Ker, and Banteay Chhmar, just to name a few) is a surprisingly peaceful activity. Not only are you afforded a chance to see the temples without thousands of others, but you can see them in their natural state, with little restoration having been done. Visiting these temples gives you a true sense of the majesty of ancient Angkor.
The Temples of Angkor aren’t an isolated incident. From the Great Wall of China to the Pyramids of Egypt, some of the world’s most amazing sites are being overrun by tourists, detracting from their historical importance and destroying the local way of life.

In 1993, the year that the Temples of Angkor were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, the temples received a paltry 7,500 tourists. Since then, tourism has increased 33,000 percent to over 2.5 million tourists in 2011.  Today, almost as many tourists visit Angkor in one day as did in the entirety of 1993. Of course, the opening of Cambodia to western tourists after the Khmer Rouge has certainly played a part in this increase, but the promotion of the site as a UNESCO site has certainly been a major factor as well.

If you don’t believe that UNESCO listing was the main cause of the increase at Angkor, search for any World Heritage Site and compare their tourist numbers from before they were part of the list and after. I think you’ll be shocked at what you discover.

For example, the island of Jeju in South Korea was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2007. Since then, the number of foreign tourists to the island has more than doubled.

That’s not to say that UNESCO listing is all bad. After all, many of the nearly 1,000 listed sites have been saved and restored because they are a World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, though, with that there is a huge price. As tourists start to come, the sites, or sometimes even whole cities, become overrun with tourists. To meet the demand, locals abandon their traditional way of life and become dependent on the tourist trade, opening shops, restaurants, and hotels to meet the new demands of world travelers.

Prague's Historic Center is a UNESCO World Heritage site meaning that it has been overrun by tourists.

Prague’s Historic Center is a UNESCO World Heritage site meaning that it has been overrun by tourists.

This isn’t an isolated phenomenon, of course. After all, many countries put time and effort into lobbying UNESCO in hopes that their nominations will be chosen for inclusion, thus increasing the numbers of tourists and spending in the region. Wouldn’t their lobbying money be better spent preserving the sites themselves, allowing tourists to come as they wish and enjoy the site in serenity?

The blame, however, doesn’t lie solely with the tourism boards and politicians in the countries. After all, more tourists bring more money to their country, improving the lives of locals. Instead, the majority of the blame rests with the United Nations and UNESCO for using locals and their culture. Ultimately, it seems to me that they are helping to exploit our world heritage instead of preserving it.

What do you think? Do you agree with me that UNESCO World Heritage listing does at least as much harm as good, or do you think I’m crazy? Let me know in the comments below.






13 Comments


  1. Zara @ Backpack ME

    Very interesting read and point of view!
    It’s not only UNESCO and the “world heritage sites” list that is causing this. I think it is also the travel guide books and the fact that many tourists follow them blindly – the fact that people just follow what these books say overcrowds certain places while leaving others (even if equally interesting) almost deserted… Fills up restaurants when they are not necessarily the best… Inflates hotel prices, etc. Tourism, as everything else, is affected by marketing and trends… And that sometimes ends up having negative effects on the historical and cultural heritage of the places, specially when big profits are involved.


    • Tripologist.com

      You are right that guidebooks certainly exasperate the problem. However, from my experience, it seems that mainstream guidebooks often don’t focus on a destination until it has already be declared a World Heritage Site. Thanks for the comment.


  2. I think you’re looking at this slightly backwards. Yes, UNESCO inscribe all these sites but they do remarkably little to promote them as tourist attractions, and they will actively remove listings if the site is damaged or impinged. It’s down to local governments to control who visits these locations, they have the ultimate power. Inscription doesn’t immediately lead to a tourist boom, inscription is there to provide expertise and funds to help stop decay.

    Whilst I appreciate that being listed as a world heritage site might draw some tourists I think it’s more the case that photography and cheap travel are to blame in a lot of sites. The ever-increasing reproduction of images of places like Angkor creates a feedback mechanism that draws in the crowds, not the heritage status. I reckon most visitors don’t give a damn about that. The majesty and accessibility of these places speaks for itself. Otherwise how can you account for the relative lack of tourists to places like the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ or Saltaire in the UK? There are 962 world heritage sites now, I expect that less than 5% of those have gained anywhere near the influxes seen at places like Angkor.

    On the question of how locals appreciate the influx, well it’s hard to say. I’ve been to many places where tourism has also brought improvements to sanitation and utilities – always welcome. But I’ve also seen massive pollution problems, binge drinking, overwhelmed transport infrastructure, sidelining of local institutions etc. as well. As ever though – money talks. If local people feel that tourism is worth the changes then they will adapt and often welcome tourism. I tend to believe that tourist money is a good thing if it’s managed well. Many countries that previously weren’t are now legislating to protect sites, cultures, and natural places because UNESCO listings have changed to recognise that monumental sites are not the whole story. For me inscription is a good thing but governments need to become more savvy about how they exploit UNESCOs badge of honour.


    • Tripologist.com

      Thanks for taking the time to read the article and write such an insightful response. You are correct in pointing out that the local governments share the blame for the mismanagement of tourist infrastructure, but ultimately, UNESCO creates the problem. I think that they should do a much better job ensuring that the sites are being managed properly.

      As for UNESCO not creating a tourist draw, I must disagree. I think that not only will tourists visit a location because it’s a World Heritage Site, but that the guidebooks pick up these sites and write large blurbs about them. This then leads to an even greater influx of tourists.

      There are certainly several places where blame can be spread, but ultimately, I see UNESCO as creating a problem and offering no solutions for how to solve it.


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  4. It’s certainly an interesting debate, and I can imagine there are both a long list of pros & cons with being listed as a UNESCO world heritage listed site. It’s possible that countries in Western Europe for example, find the tourist boom and attraction of being listed easier to control than the poorer countries in SE Asia. As Chris said above, it is down to the government to control and not the job of UNESCO.


    • Tripologist.com

      I agree that it is probably easier for first-world counties to control the tourist demand than a third-world country. However, UNESCO should take this into consideration and provide a higher level of support and control for poorer countries,

      Thanks for the comment.


  5. Rodrigo Hurtado

    I agree with you up to a certain point. I do think like you when saying UNESCO’s World Heritage List is harmful for some of the protected cultural sites because it encourages more and more people to visit these places up to the pointwhere they become overrun with tourists.This not only affecst the pleasent atmosphere a specific listed site may have but ends up destroying or damaging the site as well.

    On the other hand, I must say UNESCO’s work on protecting these sites has to be taken into account. It’s labour provides governments with more and more tourists everyday and this,as a consequence, provides them a bigger income.


  6. Pragnya

    i believe that the countries lobby for the world heritage tag for three main reasons,
    1. they intend to preserve the heritage having an “outstanding Universal Value”
    2. influx of tourists leading to huge revenue. (Even the official website of the World heritage Convention states that tourism is the benefit the states would get through the tag).
    3. International recognition
    All three are equally important for Sustainable Development. I opine that, as a party to the convention, all the state parties are under an obligation to protect the heritage site in their territory (whether listed or not).Also, the convention leaves it upon the state to take necessary measures and adopt necessary policies or laws. thus, preserving the heritage site whether from tourists, or any other source would be their obligation. if they are concentrating on money, neglecting the protection of the heritage site, the very purpose of the convention and the recognition fails. thus a sustainable development envisaged by the Convention remains a distant dream. no matter how many laws we make, its upto us to take control of the situation. both locals and government must realise the importance and seriousness of the Heritage site, only then the objects of the convention would be completely fulfilled.


  7. Michel

    Very interesting perspective amd one I have nevr thought about. I have to agree,i worry about the impact on cultures and hope they do not become too Westernised.


  8. I don’t see how it can be said the UN and UNESCO is exploiting locals and their culture; it’s (UNESCO’s) purpose is “to create the conditions for dialogue among civilizations, cultures and peoples, based upon respect for commonly shared values. It is through this dialogue that the world can achieve global visions of sustainable development encompassing observance of human rights, mutual respect and the alleviation of poverty, all of which are at the heart of UNESCO’S mission and activities.” I feel the negatives you are talking about are a byproduct of that – cultural exchange leading to increased awareness of sites leading to increased demand leading, which paired with bad management leads to a downward spiral.

    I made a lot of friends in the UN and international NGO’s while working in Myanmar and I remember discussing UNESCO with one of them. He was critical of UNESCO for other reasons, although he did support the World Heritage list, however he also feels there should be different ranks of world heritage sites – for example Angkor Wat is completely different from St Kilda. That said, just because something is a UNESCO WHS doesn’t necessarily mean it is going to attract droves of tourists. There are almost 1000 of them and I don’t think all 1000 are overrun with tourists and spoiled. I think it’s simply a case of mass marketing being an issue.



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